On May 23, Tauck Small Ship Cruises launched the 84th departure of its St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea itinerary, but it was the first time the company chartered the entire ship and filled it with Tauck guests. Previously, Tauck’s practice had been to bring groups onboard under the stewardship of their own tour directors and taking exclusive Tauck-operated land tours, but the guests shared the ship with other guests who were not part of the Tauck group.
This time, Tauck chartered the entire ship and turned it into an exclusive Tauck cruise. The ship is Ponant’s Le Soleal. It has a capacity of 264 passengers. On this departure, it carried 218. Le Soleal has six decks, two restaurants, a fitness center and steam room, an outdoor swimming pool, a boutique, internet and TV.
Tauck assigned each of the guests to one of six tour directors, which the company calls Tauck directors. Each of them was charged with taking care of approximately 36 guests. The company organized the activities of the different groups on separate tracks for sightseeing and activities, and combined all the groups for some of the larger events. It is an organizational scheme Tauck developed through its land events, such as its Ken Burns Civil War event in Washington D.C. and its Jazz event in New Orleans.
Also new for this itinerary, the company offered some alternative activities for guests to choose from, separate from the scheduled free time, when the guests do whatever they want.
Reliving a great shipwreck
The opening dinner on the first night, for example, brought all the guests together at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, combining a quick tour of the museum with a gala dinner in the museum after hours when it was closed to the public.
The Vasa Museum is built around the Vasa, a Swedish warship built in the 1620s that had 64 cannons and was 226 feet long and 164 feet tall. It was a magnificent, ornate construction, but was not seaworthy. On its maiden voyage in 1628, it had not even made it one mile when it was hit by a gust of wind, which caused it to keel over. Water rushed into the gun ports and, within minutes, the ship was on the ocean floor 100 feet down. In the 1950s, the ship was discovered, and after a massive effort, was brought to the surface and restore.
It was quite a setting for an opening night dinner.
During the daytime, the six directors took their groups out separately, staggering the activities so that the groups were not all at the same place at the same time.
Exploring the Baltic
The Baltic Sea itinerary has a pleasing symmetry, encompassing four cities in four countries over a period of 13 days, counting travel time to and from. As the title implies, St. Petersburg, Russia, is the centerpiece of the tour. It is the middle point of the itinerary with a three-night stay, using the ship for accommodations parked in the Neva River at a central location within walking distance of many of the city’s attractions.
The trip is bookended by two-night stays in Stockholm, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark. It is offered in both directions, beginning and ending with two nights on land in either Stockholm or Copenhagen.
Between Stockholm and St. Petersburg is a day tour of Helsinki, Finland; and between Copenhagen and St. Petersburg is a day tour in Talinn, Estonia. Between Talinn and Copenhagen is a day at sea.
Tauck’s cruising style
Tauck’s style of ocean cruising is radically different from what has become the norm in the cruise industry. It is a blend of the cultures of cruising and land touring. It is much more destination-focused than most cruise products, and it incorporates Tauck’s culture and experience as an operator of land tours since 1925.
Whether chartering the whole ship or booking into a departure, Tauck brings its own directors who guide and care for its guests throughout the duration of the program. The directors are extremely attentive and personal. They are there to direct the activities, watch your back and to solve or hopefully prevent whatever problems may arise for each individual guest.
The Tauck directors lead the land excursions, which reflect Tauck’s 90-plus years of experience operating land tours. The local tours employ local guides, but the directors are always there overseeing the tour. They are very handy in such precautions as reminding guests to watch their belongings in crowded areas in cities, where petty thieves tend to target tourists.
The shore excursions on a Tauck cruise are on a level with the company’s land tours, developed over the better part of a century, a good cut above what most cruise lines offer.
Also strikingly different from the standard cruise product is Tauck’s all-inclusive policy onboard the ship. Everything onboard is included in the purchase price of the tour. That includes all meals and all drinks, including what you take from the minibar in your cabin. Even room service is included, whenever you want it 24 hours a day.
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.
You pay once and then you are done with money concerns for the duration of the trip. All the tipping is included, including for the onboard staff, housekeeping and food service, and porterage straight through the trip, including the hotel stays.
A few meals during the land portions of the trip were not included and were designated as part of the free time for exploring on your own. For those, Tauck provides a list of suggested, vetted restaurants. The company also provides lists of suggestions of things to see and do during free time in each of the cities. WiFi on the ship and in the hotels is also included.
A full schedule of activities is provided on the ship, including movies, lectures and musical performances.
Another Tauck hallmark is using its buying power to secure special privileges for its guests. The opening night dinner at the Vasa Museum after hours is an example. Tauck also got an exclusive early entrance to the Hermitage Museum, allowing Tauck customers to avoid the lines, which an hour or two later had grown to more than a block long.
All in all, it was a pleasurable cruise and a great introduction to the countries in the Baltic region.
The Vasa Museum in Stockholm.